Tag Archives: westerns

Film Review: Django Unchained

Django UnchainedWhilst Lincoln examines the subject of slavery from a historical point of view, Django Unchained comes at it with a much more bombastic, satirical approach. But would you expect anything less from Quentin Tarantino, the man who has a penchant for the elaborate and whose last film, the superb Inglorious Basterds, rewrote World War II with Adolf Hitler being machine-gunned down in a movie theatre?

Django Unchained has a linear, single-story narrative, which is somewhat of a departure for Tarantino, and tells the tale of freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx) who teams up with bounty hunter Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) to free his wife from the clutches of vile plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

It’s difficult to pigeon hole any of Tarantino’s movies and this one is no exception. At face value it seems like a western, but even Tarantino himself doesn’t refer to it as that, instead calling it a “southern”. Despite that, there’s plenty more at play here, as is Tarantino’s inclination to beg, borrow and steal from just about every corner of the movie world; at the heart of the film is part buddy movie, part love story.

The staple Tarantino elements are all there: over the top violence, contemporary soundtrack, and oodles of witty dialogue. However, none of that dialogue would mean anything without some stellar performances to pull it off, and there are plenty of those here.

Christoph Waltz is, once again, imperious, his knack for making the grittiest of dialogue sound like beautiful poetry is a real joy to behold. Samuel L Jackson also shows that given the right material he can own a part unlike any other as the equally hilarious and abhorrent slave Steven. It’s Leo Dicaprio, however, who really stands out. Calvin Candie marks the first time DiCaprio has played the bad guy and he does it with true menace and complete and utter conviction. Jamie Foxx on the other hand as the titular Django doesn’t quite have the same screen presence as his co-stars. Too often he’s overshadowed and doesn’t have the conviction and bite the role requires.

One thing that the film does suffer from is a running time that’s about 30 minutes too long. There simply isn’t enough story there to warrant such length and there are a number of scenes which wouldn’t have been missed if they’d been left on the cutting room floor. There is a much neater, more succinct film in there somewhere but Tarantino seems to allow a little too much self-indulgence at times.

The theme of slavery getting the Tarantino treatment may not sit right with some and this is indeed thin ice the director is walking at times (casual use of the ‘N-word’ is rife throughout), but he never falls through it. Above all things, Django Unchained is a hell of a lot of fun and shows a further willingness to explore serious subject matter but in the only way he knows how.

4 and a half pigeons

4.5/5 pigeons

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What Dya Mean You Haven’t Seen… Unforgiven?

Unforgiven In the latest ‘What Dya Mean You Haven’t Seen…?’ post, where I finally get round to watching films people are incredulous I haven’t already seen, I am going to be taking a look at the 1993 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Unforgiven. Spoilers, naturally.

Plot: In the little town of Big Whiskey, the local prostitutes are just trying to earn a living doing what they do. However, one of the girls rubs a customer up the wrong way (not like that) and ends up getting herself cut up and left with severe facial disfigurements. When lawman Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) fails to take the appropriate action over the offence, the other prostitutes decide to take matters into their own hands and offer a bounty on the offenders’ heads. This attracts the attention of cowboy  The Schofield Kid who approaches retired badass William Munny (Clint Eastwood) to help him with the hit. Munny begrudgingly accepts and enlists his former partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) to help.

Unforgiven was the first western Clint Eastwood had made in seven years, since 1985’s Pale Rider, and would mark the last one he would make (to this point). Immediately this draws parallels with Unforgiven’s plot. Eastwood hadn’t retired from making westerns but had left the film until he felt he was old enough to play the character of William Munny. In the same way Munny shows that he still has what it takes, Eastwood also proves that he can still gunsling with the best of them. Is this a bit of self-glorification on Eastwood’s part? Possibly, but it really doesn’t matter. There is also a more gentle side of Munny, as suggested at in the film’s brief prologue text, which allows this to be a more rounded performance from Eastwood and one that would earn him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

Whilst Eastwood is the cold hard killer with a softer side, Morgan Freeman’s Ned Logan shows absolutely no sign of ever being capable of taking someone out and is a rather odd character. He’s the other side of Munny, the one who can’t go through with the bounty and has fully changed his ways, but Freeman just doesn’t give the impression he could ever have been a killer and is not wholly believable. What is also little unsettling is the scene in which Logan is whipped by Little Bill. The symbolism of this scene is fairly obvious (whether intended or not) and coupled with the almost KKK-style display of the body illuminated by torches, it seems a little jarring.

Moral compass

Logan & MunnyA major theme running right through the heart of Unforgiven is that of morality. We are constantly being challenged to question the morality of pretty much all the characters. Who is wrong and who is right? Are any of them wrong or right or are the lines blurred? The prostitutes feel rightly aggrieved at the lack of justice but is it right for them to offer up a bounty on the offenders’ heads, especially when the victim seems happy enough to accept their apologies. Similarly, is Munny justified in taking on the hit? He wants to right a wrong (as well as earn some money) but killing someone who technically has already been sentenced, could well be seen as a morally wrong act. Logan decides not to go through with the job but was technically conspiring to murder and supplied a murder weapon. He seems to be doing the right thing but still has plenty of blood on his hands.

Little Bill is a prime example of the moral ambiguity present in the film. He stands for law and order and is trying to protect his town from violence. He’s building himself a nice little house. He seems like the epitome of all that is good. Yet for some reason he’s just as hateable as likable. He doesn’t dish out adequate punishment for the man who cut up the girl, yet kills Logan. For someone who apparently stands against violence, he’s quick to dish it out. He’s just a flawed individual, just like everybody else in the film. Maybe there is no wrong or right and the moral compass is one that never settles no matter which way it’s pointed.

Don’t believe everything you hear

As well as morality, Unforgiven also brings up the themes of lying and the way reputations can be built on little more than hearsay. Munny is apparently a hardened killer of women and children yet we know that he was married, has children and seemed to have changed his ways. Did he really kill women and children or are those merely tales spun that have been accepted as fact. Furthermore, the girl who is attacked apparently, according to The Schofield Kid, had her eyes but out and her breasts cut off. We know this not to be true yet that’s the story that has been told. An entire character, English Bob (Richard Harris), is based around the idea that the truth has been contorted and manipulated for one’s own ends, and The Schofield Kid is another who has lied to make people believe a certain version of events. Pretty much everyone in the film twists the truth at some juncture to serve their own purposes.

Unforgiven

So who are the ‘unforgiven’? Well, again, it’s pretty much everyone. Despite doing the right thing, Logan is unforgiven for his past crimes, as is Munny (although he pretty much gets away with his aside from losing his friend). The girl’s attackers are unforgiven despite offering to give her their best horse as recompense. Little Bill is unforgiven for not properly sentencing the attackers, whilst The Schofield Kid will never forgive himself for his crime. Every single character in the film has a rich story to tell which makes it one of the deepest westerns you could hope to see.

The cinematography is beautiful throughout, particularly the plains and landscapes. The snow-covered scenery is perhaps the most eye-catching (even if it does make the timeline of events rather confusing, suggesting more time has passed than it really has) and is especially remarkable considering it was not at all scripted and was a merely a freak snowstorm.

If this really is Eastwood’s last ever western, then what a high note to go out on. It might be a little bit of fan service and an ego trip for him but there’s also a lot to it than that. Cowboys have always been about bringing justice to the Wild West but Unforgiven, in a similar way to John Ford’s The Searchers, makes it difficult to always distinguish between right and wrong.

Chris

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